Critic's Notebook: 'Curb,' Corden and Fallon — Do We Expect Too Much From Our Clowns?

Is there room for late-night hosts and big-name comics to not be politically sharp in the era of Trump and Weinstein?
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James Corden

Learning that Shailene Woodley doesn't own or watch TV wasn't surprising. The Big Little Lies star has been outspoken about her activism, homemade deodorant and frolicking with woodland creatures, and if she'd announced on the red carpet for the Newbery Medal ceremony that she preferred books, you would literally never have heard a word about the comment. Instead, Woodley chose to question the cultural supremacy of TV at the Emmy Awards, an event designed to fluff the libido of the medium. As a result, she became a meme.

Timing, as comedy writers will tell you, is everything.

Take Tom Hagen. Devoted, informally adopted son of a godfather. Whip-smart and given all of the advantages of a formal advanced education. Beloved by the entire family. Positioned for as important a role as a German-Irish kid could hope for in an Italian mafia family. But circumstances outside his control had the Corleones going to the mattresses and, in this moment, Michael condemns Tom as "not a wartime consigliere." [There were other elements afoot in Michael's comment. Nationality. Blood. Etc. I'm ignoring those for the moment, OK?]

Timing, as drama writers also will tell you, is everything.

With ratings on the decline for a year, Jimmy Fallon has been on a tour of self-rationalization, if not quite regret or apology. Fallon was mocked last week for an interview he gave in which he admitted he didn't really "care that much about politics" as a way of explaining why he and NBC's The Tonight Show haven't dedicated the same bandwidth to criticizing our current presidential administration as some of his late-night rivals. The instinct is to condemn this disinterest of Fallon's and to say that in moments of national polarization and activism, not caring about politics is a sign of a lazy mind. But would we be more generous to Fallon if he parroted an acumen he doesn't genuinely possess? I'm sure Fallon has the ability to hire writers who do "care that much about politics," but would we even believe the words coming out of his mouth? Fallon is fun and games and impressions, and if he tried doing a 10-minute treatise on sexual harassment or gun control, would we believe it? I've seen 10 minutes of Taxi and I'd posit we would not. This isn't his fault, per se. In a country at war with itself, Fallon is a peacetime consigliere.

Timing, as Fallon would tell you, is everything. The Donald Trump hair-tussling incident that has become Fallon's scarlet letter wasn't the only toothless piece of late-night coverage relating to Trump. Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel did toothless Trump interviews. Saturday Night Live, as we'll never forget, let Trump host and then collected bushels of Emmys a year later for lampooning the man the show helped enable. But whereas those facile interrogations came when Trump was just a candidate and it was still viable to claim, "We didn't think he was going to win!," Fallon's interview was in September after primaries and conventions, after Trump had weathered scandals that would have sunk every other figure in American political history. Timing is everything.

The division between wartime and peacetime late-night consiglieri is drawn every single time a major news story breaks, whether it's Trump-related or not.

When the Harvey Weinstein revelations that have engulfed Hollywood broke two weeks ago, all eyes went to late night and everybody played exactly into the roles they've assigned themselves over the past year. SNL dropped the ball the first week and then came out swinging the following week as if we wouldn't remember the previous dereliction of duty. Kimmel came out challenging and solid. Seth Meyers came out with depth and showcased the diversity of his writing staff. With more days to think about it, Samantha Bee, John Oliver and new-kid-on-the-block Jim Jefferies came out angry and thorough. Fallon made a toothless Fox News joke buried in the middle of a bland monologue. We know who the wartime consiglieri are, and we know who the peacetime consiglieri are.

Over the weekend, James Corden got into trouble for a series of Weinstein jokes at a benefit he was hosting. Like Fallon, albeit perhaps a smidge less so, Corden is a peacetime consigliere. He does karaoke. He does showtunes and showcases his charming parents. I never see news breaking and go, "Man, I can't wait to hear what James Corden is going to say about this!," and his amfAR gala jokes point to why. They were glib, unfunny and showed an astounding misreading of the room and the moment. Had Corden made the exact same jokes a week earlier, he probably would have remained unscathed. As the story was still breaking, the charges against Weinstein were mostly serial sexual harassment. Those charges shouldn't be diminished, and I'm not establishing a threshold for what can and cannot be joked about. Corden's jokes still would have been lame, and lame jokes about sexual harassment are plenty reprehensible. But by the time Corden uttered them, the accusations had advanced to rape and assault. In this case, timing isn't everything, but timing is the difference between a public apology and none. Of course, others in the space have continued making Weinstein jokes, some biting and perceptive, but that doesn't mean Corden knows how to.

The line between peacetime and wartime consiglieri isn't an impenetrable wall. If you'd told me a year ago that Kimmel would be a wartime consigliere, I'd have rolled my eyes. He wasn't in the Corden/Fallon camp of people whose opinions I considered irrelevant, but I'd never have gone out of my way to hear what he had to say. Suddenly, though, as social and political issues have become more personal for Kimmel, his engagement has gone through the roof. Sometimes that's what it takes.

Perhaps why Fallon's vapidity feels like such a betrayal is because his previous role as co-anchor of SNL's "Weekend Update" produced the illusion that he cared, if only because he was placed in proximity to Tina Fey, who would never give an interview claiming apathy toward politics. If wartime caused Kimmel to sharpen his knives, Fallon picked an odd time to beat his swords into plowshares.

This prism doesn't just impact late-night comedy. I've been down on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm this season. After a seven-year wait for new episodes, the first three episodes back have felt forced to me, like Larry David doing Curb fan-fic more than doing his show. There have been woefully underutilized guest stars, rants and attempted catchphrases that felt hollow and full-circle episodic resolutions that didn't seem earned. I've also been irrationally irritated by the fictional separation of Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen on the show, because some things must be sacred. But lurking in the background has been my itching sensation that David's annoyance with cookie tongs and his inattentive assistants feel like trifles and, in contrast, the fatwa against him feels like something of substance being treated as a trifle — and the balance hasn't been right.

I'm not comfortable saying that in Trump's America, my desire to laugh at David's peccadillos is diminished. I just don't think Curb has been sharp this season. But maybe the latter sentiment is a result of the former fact.

There has to be room for light, politics-free humor in a world gone mad, and allowances have to be made for audiences wanting to escape and comics not forcing themselves to be something they're not.

Our responses, though, are surely a matter of timing.

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